Community responds to inadequate support for local shelter residents

On the morning of Saturday December 8th, around 23 volunteers gathered at the Black Creek Community Health Centre in Sheridan Mall. They convened in response to a call to action by Jill, a certified housing support worker committed to supporting and working with our most vulnerable populations on and off the clock. In mid-November, Jill’s volunteerism led her to the Toronto Plaza Hotel which is currently being used as an emergency shelter space by the City of Toronto. While she was only there for a brief visit to pick up donations, her observation of the hotel premises left her feeling disheartened. She was especially saddened as she realized that there was an overrepresentation of Black individuals and families seeking respite in the shelter space. This was compounded by the inadequate accommodations. “The common areas are filthy, the dining areas are unsanitary, the rooms are cold,” she recounts. Jill left the hotel reflecting on how the housing crisis plays out as yet another example of how one systemic inequity feeds into the next and asked herself, “In what ways can we make room for a holistic intervention?”

Her call to action, which was shared with the Black Toronto Community Support Group that connects 25,000 of the Black community across the Greater Toronto Area via social media, urged members to check out the emergency shelter space, rent rooms to shelter residents and to donate goods such as clothing and sanitary napkins.

The charge was taken up by Noella Charles, a local caterer. She visited the hotel to try to coordinate a drop-off donation space within the shelter. After learning that external groups were not allowed to distribute donations to shelter residents directly, she got in touch with the executive director of the Black Creek Community Health Centre who was very supportive of an initiative to support residents. The executive director provided staff to do outreach and offered space for community members to drop-off donations over the week long period before the clothing drive and even made the kitchen available for the Community Support Group to host a breakfast for shelter residents. “I donated about 80% of the food and one other volunteer provided a few dozen eggs and bagels,” Noella mentioned.  Up to 140 plates were provided to shelter residents who attended the clothing drive.

The spirit of the gathering was one of infectious compassion. Noella connected with a resident that she was able to offer a casual employment opportunity. “I am in a position to help. I own my own business and can offer people a job if they need it.” This was said as volunteers were huddled off into a corner planning their next steps- specifically how they could create a community pipeline to respond to the challenges that precarious housing poses to the community. Shelter residents expressed the exact sentiment of volunteers to maintain a connection to the community.

One expectant mother, a newcomer from Nigeria, expressed the following, “With the accommodation problem in this city, the more information we can get, the better we are able to support ourselves and our families.” She continued, “It is hard to live on the stipend from the government and also try to save for the new baby.” She further shared her surprise that she was able to get a crib at the clothing drive.

Jill was overwhelmed as she watched up to 150 families and individuals enjoy breakfast and leave with basic goods and then some. Still, more can be done. “A lot of men came in today seeking adequate winter gear such as boots and jackets. A lot of men left disappointed today.” As she was checking in with those who attended the drive, she learned that many had come from across the city- even from as far as Scarborough. Noting the recent changes by the provincial government to freeze the minimum wage increase, coupled with the changes to Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, which are made worse by the stoppage of rent control legislation, Jill is weary of the ways these instances of negligence will continue to strip community members of their agency.

“Poverty is unfortunately a systemic experience and not an individual one,” she mulled on this point. Shelter residents carry diverse narratives- they are parents, children, they are fleeing war, they have been trafficked, balancing mental health challenges, are seniors, or have learning disabilities. Jill does not believe that she has the right to speak on behalf of shelter residents but concludes that, “We have an obligation to look out for our most vulnerable.”

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